Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Open Forum 4

Hey all. This will be the last Open Forum for a while, as we've now completed our "Rosary" of posts. Over the next little while, I'll be writing a few more strictly apologetics-based articles dealing with Mary and the Church's beliefs about her. As well, I'll probably toss out a few articles on various sundry topics. In the Fall, I plan to put up a debate that Christopher, former co-author and frequent commenter--and, most importantly, dear friend--and I will be having via email on the Papacy, and whether it is a valid authority. I obviously will be arguing for it.

But before that, I thought, in the body of this post, that I would wax personal on my own journey to a relationship with Our Blessed Mother, Mary. The following is adapted from a comment I made to a fellow on a Facebook group discussion.

I grew up as a Pentecostal, which, as you may or may not know, rather views itself as the opposite of everything that Catholicism is: anti-traditional, anti-liturgical, anti-ritual, and very, very pro-direct relationship with God. Now, of course, that last one is something we as Catholics quite agree with--but when I was a Pentecostal, I thought that Catholics had heaped a whole lot of that tradition, liturgy, and ritual in between their relationship with Jesus. And Mary, well, she was the epitome of why I thought so.

Toward the end of high school, I began a long, complicated, and in the end, destructive relationship with a girl. On the whole, not a good scene, but God allowed two good things to come from it: First, she shook me loose from my Pentecostal moorings, showing me other denominational viewpoints. Second, through her I went to the particular Bible College that I did.

Having "left" Pentecostalism over some small points of doctrine with which I disagreed (small in the grand scheme of things, but big in the sense that they are PAOC "distinctives"), I realised I couldn't be ordained as a Pentecostal minister, and so I went to the aforementioned Bible College, which was itself sponsored by a particular denomination, but which welcomed students of all or no denominational affiliation. What that meant in practice was that at a small school of 350 people, there were over 40 different denominations represented, and between classes, friendships, and independent research, I looked into most of them--since, not being "Pentecostal" anymore, I had to find the denomination that taught what I believed, so that I could join up with it.

Now, I don't know if you noticed what I just said there. God knows I didn't for quite some time. But as I studied theology and missions and the rest, still trying to figure out which denomination agreed with my beliefs, I suddenly recognised that I was approaching Church completely backwards! Biblically speaking, people didn't come to faith in Christ, and then look for a church that fit their needs. They believed in Christ, and there was a Church there, that demanded obedience and faith from them. If they didn't like Pastor Peter's ideas, they couldn't just leave and start going to Pastor Paul's church, because it was the same Church!

So of course, having had this epiphany, and looking around at the myriads of denominations currently calling themselves Christian, I knew I had to figure out which one was "Pastor Peter and Pastor Paul's church". I'll spare you the details here of how it was that I eventually concluded that it was, in fact, the very Catholic Church that I had viewed as barely Christian and the antithesis of a real relationship with Jesus. I had intended to write about my journey to Mary.

I investigated Catholicism for three solid years (neglecting and thereby failing a good deal of my Bible College courses in the process, and finally graduating with a diploma rather less than the Bachelor I'd initially signed on for), wrestling with it, fighting tooth and nail against the truth that was becoming plainly evident. I'd begun dating a Catholic girl (to whom I am now married) during that time, and would debate with her about various things about Catholicism. Three things really threw me: Transubstantiation--Jesus' really being Present in the Eucharist; Purgatory; and Mary. Surprisingly, I found the answers to the first right in my own Bible (imagine that!) and the second through sound reasoning from the Bible. But Mary was different. It had been so ingrained in me that Catholicism's veneration of Mary was idolatrous, or at least dangerously close to it, that even the most sound, reasonable, biblical arguments did little to really change my heart. In fact, in discussing these things with my girlfriend, I'd even convinced her that Protestantism was right about Mary!

After these three years, I entered what's known as RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) which is basically a nearly-year long course explaining the faith to potential converts, preparing them to be received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil mass. I'd put it off for those three years, until I felt it would be dishonest of me to delay it again. I had also hoped that my concerns about Mary would be dealt with through this process.

Toward the end of the course, the priest sits down with each prospective convert to interview them about their readiness and willingness to become Catholic. When he sat down with me, he asked if I still wanted to become Catholic. During this time, I had come to believe so fully in Jesus' literal presence in the Eucharist, that I desired that communion with Him more than anything else, and I told the priest so, "but," I said, "I still can't get past the whole Mary thing. I know all the arguments in my head, and they make sense, and to that extent, I believe them. But I've grown up so long being taught that praying to Mary and the saints is idolatrous, that even though I know in my head that it's not, in my heart, it still feels like it is. In Romans 14, St. Paul talks about those for whom something good seems like sin (like drinking), for them it is a sin, even if it's perfectly legitimate for another. That's how I feel when it comes to Marian devotions--that practicing them would be sinful for me, even though I know it's really okay in my head. In my heart I would be sinning. Can I still become Catholic anyway, even if I never pray to Mary?"

His answer was this, that I could be received into the Church anyway, but that I must not teach others that my own scruples about Mary were the truth, and forbid them from Marian devotion. Further, he said, I should continue to pray and seek Jesus' own opinion of Catholic devotion to His Mother. I readily agreed to the conditions, and so finally received Jesus truly present in the Eucharist in 2004, as I was welcomed into the Catholic Church.

Ironically, even though I was hesitant (at best) about Mary, when I was first taught the Rosary in RCIA (at which it was explained that while it's a prayer involving a lot of Hail Marys, the key is the meditations on the life of Jesus, and so while it's technically a Marian devotion, it's very focused on Jesus--which intrigued me greatly), I was very taken with it. At first it was because the Rosary was something so stereotypically Catholic that I felt almost obliged to at least try it. but as I prayed it and meditated on the life of Christ, I really did feel that I was growing closer to Him. That this could be the result of a Marian devotion really helped me move all that head-knowledge down toward my heart--although I think that at this point, it was still stuck in my throat ;)

One day, my wife (still my girlfriend, or possibly fiancée at that point) and I went to a Protestant Christian bookstore in my neighbourhood. This particular store had a fairly well-developed Catholic section, and I was investigating it that day, and talking with the owner. I found an intriguing book by Scott Hahn, whom I had heard good things about, all about Mary. The most intriguing thing was the title--or, more precisely, the sub-title: Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God. I wondered what Dr. Hahn had to say about Mary in the Bible, and so I bought the book, and devoured it! Hahn, in a way characteristic of all the other books of his that I've read, opened up Scripture to me in a way that I'd never seen before--and I discovered that Mary isn't just in the Gospel stories, but, just like Jesus, appears all through Scripture, through types and figures. Anyway, this book was far from a simple academic text, but appealed as well to my heart (I remember tearing up at points reading it! But maybe I'm just weird). Well, it succeeded in shoving Marian belief from my throat and into my chest within just a few months of making that promise to my priest that I would continue to pray about Mary. I now believed everything about Mary, both in my head and my heart--but there was still one more step.

The final step in my journey of Marian devotion happened through the Rosary again. In 2002, Pope John Paul II had written a document about the Rosary in which he added another set of mysteries to it (up until that point, the meditations had focused on Jesus' birth and childhood, His passion and death; and His resurrection and the founding of the Church. The Pope filled in the gap with meditations on Jesus' life and ministry). The Pope also advocated that when we pray it, we begin each mystery with a more spontaneous prayer of intention to guide our reflection on that mystery. He suggested certain intentions that would be appropriate to the various mysteries.

Having discovered the Rosary after his encyclical, I automatically incorporated the new mysteries and his suggestions into my prayers. And so I would pray thus: "Lord Jesus, as I meditate on X mystery, I pray for Y intention or grace." Now, of the new mysteries, the second one is Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. The pope's suggested intention for this mystery was to ask for greater trust in Mary's intercession for us. So I would pray "Lord Jesus, as I meditate on the wedding feast at Cana, help me to trust more fully in Mary's intercession for me."

All of a sudden, once again I realised I was doing things backwards, just like when I was trying to find the church that agreed with me, instead of looking to find the true Church and submit myself to it. And so I prayed instead, "Mother Mary, as I meditate on the wedding feast at Cana, help me to trust more fully in your intercessions for me." It actually took me a full minute to force that sentence out. I could pray a Hail Mary by rote, but I had never addressed a spontaneous prayer to Mary. Once I did, it was like the floodgates broke. The last step had been taken. I went from believing in Mary (even with my heart) to actually having a relationship with her.

And here again, I can anticipate that many readers will recoil from that phrase. You'll understand believing in Jesus and having a relationship with Him, but to see those phrases employed about Mary will probably be a bit of a shock, I imagine. But please note a few things: First, as you yourself know, Catholics, myself included, do not worship Mary. So when I use the terms "believe in" and "relationship with", I do not mean by them that I worship Mary as divine. Second, following from the first, I have a relationship with my wife, but certainly do not worship her. Finally, you may say that my wife is alive, but one cannot have a relationship with a dead person. To that I heartily disagree. Both, that it is impossible to have a relationship with a "dead" person, for that is what is meant in the Creed by "I the communion of saints". Second, I disagree that Mary or the saints are, in fact, dead. Rather, they, and especially Mary, are more alive that we are, for they dwell in Heaven in the fullness of eternal life. I say especially Mary, for Catholics believe that at the end of her life, Jesus took her up to heaven body and soul (like Elijah in the OT), and so she is a fully resurrected person like we all will be when Jesus comes again.

Anyway, that's my story. I wish I could do more to explain a relationship with Mary, but I'm afraid that one can't explain the intimacies of something so personal, any more than I could adequately explain my relationship with Jesus.

Feel free to comment on my story, or any of the preceding Rosary posts, or anything else of interest to you (that's what Open Forums are all about!). Just remember to keep your comments coming out of a spirit of charity and civility.

Oh, and, contrary to past forums (fora), other people besides Christopher can and should post!

God bless,
Hail Mary,

(Category: Miscellaneous: Open Fora)

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Fifth Glorious Mystery

The Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
A Reading from the Book of Revelation (11:19-12:17)
Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.
And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!"
So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.
The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

As I mentioned in my last meditation, the one book of the Bible that was likely written after Mary's assumption into heaven does, in fact, seem to refer to it--that is, the book of Revelation. In chapter 12, John describes a glorious Lady crowned and arrayed with celestial bodies, who gives birth to a Son who will rule all the nations. Before going on to meditate on Mary's Queenship based from this passage, I wanted to pause for a moment in order to establish that this Lady is, indeed, Our Lady, for it seems that there is some small controversy on that point.

As I said, the passage describes the Lady as giving birth to a Son. Establishing His identity will be a solid indication as to her identity. John describes the Son in these terms: "The woman was delivered of a boy, the son who was to rule all the nations with an iron sceptre." This latter part of the verse, about ruling the nations with a rod of iron, is a direct allusion to Psalm 2:8-9:
'Ask of Me, and I shall give You the nations as Your birthright,
the whole wide world as Your possession.
With an iron sceptre You will break them,
shatter them like so many pots.'
This psalm is understood as to be referring to the Messiah's reign, and so the Son to which the Lady gives birth is Jesus Himself. In this celestial drama, there is also an adversary, a great red dragon who desires to destroy the Child, but is unable to. John identifies him explicitly as Satan, who is then thrust down by Michael the Archangel. Now, we thus have Christ, Satan, and Michael--three specific people. And then we have the Woman. Logically, to me, the Woman who gives birth to the Messiah is Mary, who gave birth to Jesus. And yet, many interpreters of this passage disagree, some claiming instead that the Woman represents the Jewish people, while others claim that she represents the Church. Now, while I agree that to a limited extent the Woman can be seen as representing one or even both of these groups, I do not think that Israel or the Church can be taken as the primary interpretation. In a text where all the other characters specifically refer to specific people, why do we then want to interpret the primary figure as not a specific person but as a symbolic representation? But I have belaboured this point long enough. Let us proceed then recognising that the Woman is Our Lady. What then does this passage teach us about her?

We see first that God's sanctuary in heaven is opened at the blowing of the trumpet, and amidst peals of thunder, violent earthquakes, and hail, the long-lost Ark of the Covenant is seen there in heaven. And as St. John focuses on that holiest of artifacts, lost for centuries, he realises that it is not the gold-plated wooden reliquary, but rather, it is a Woman, magnificently clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, and crowned with twelve stars. This Woman is the Ark of the New Covenant, and here St. John gives us the most definitive statement of that fact, which has itself been the recurring theme of these meditations.

Mary, our New Ark of the Covenant, is also our Holy Queen, as we see from John's description. She is arrayed in splendour and crowned with stars! St. John describes her as labouring to give birth to the Messiah, and here is a mystery. How is Mary, gloriously present in Heaven, depicted as giving birth to Jesus--something that clearly happened on earth? We must remember the symbolic nature of Revelation. Unlike his Gospel, John's Revelation is not a chronological account, but a peek behind the veil into spiritual realities. In fact, if anything, time seems to flow backwards in John's reckoning. He begins with a vision of a glorified Jesus (ch 1), then sees Him as the Lamb who was slain, present before the Altar of Heaven (ch 5). Later, he sees Jesus as the Child (ch 12), but then a chapter later describes Him as the Lamb slain from before time began (13:8)! Finally, John bookends his vision with Christ as a glorified King as in chapter 1 (ch 19 ff). Thus, Mary's appearance with Jesus as a child in heaven is not taken as a literal chronology. Rather, while it refers to the literal event of Christmas, it reveals to us that just as Jesus is eternally presenting His sacrifice to the Father on Heaven's Altar (Rev 5:6), so Mary is perpetually, spiritually, causing Jesus to be born in us.

This is what Satan cannot abide, and so he stands ready to devour the Child as soon as He is born, just as in Jesus' parable of the sower, the birds snatch the grain of God's Word up from the worn path of a hardened heart. But Satan has no power over the child, who is caught up to God and to His throne. He has no power over Mary, either, for she has been conceived without the stain of sin, and is able to flee the dragon. And so Michael, heaven's champion, wars with the dragon and thrusts him down to earth.

St. John makes sure that, in this scene, we recognise the parallel to the Fall of Man in Genesis 3--and particularly to the promise of redemption in verse 15. Where Satan was able to bring about Adam and Eve's fall into sin, Jesus and Mary recapitulate the Fall. God had promised, "I shall put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will bruise your head and you will strike his heel" (Gen 3:15). It is here, I find, that we see the reason why John repeatedly refers to Mary as "Woman", both in Revelation and throughout his Gospel (cf John 2:4; 19:26). He makes it clear that she is the Woman with whom the Serpent has been put in enmity. She is the New Eve, whose Child will crush Satan's head, while Satan will bruise His heel--which was ultimately fulfilled in the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

Unable to triumph over Our Lord and Lady, Satan sets his sights on Mary's other offspring, lest they too should crush his head with Jesus. So, knowing that his time is short, he turns to ravage those "who obey God's commandments and have in themselves the witness of Jesus" (Rev 12:17). Here again is a mystery--and a great and wonderful hope! We, who follow God and testify to Jesus--who are adopted sons and daughters of the Father and the younger brothers and sisters of Christ--have been given His Mother as our Mother as well, just as He gave Mary to St. John at the foot of the Cross. Thus, despite Satan's best efforts and most violent ragings, if we stay close to our Mother, she will continue to birth Christ in us, and while Satan may strike at our heels, Jesus living in us will ultimately and finally crush the head of the serpent!

Mother Mary, our Heavenly Queen, we ask for your protection. Cover us under your mantle, and continue to form in us the image of your Son. Amen.


(Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Fourth Glorious Mystery

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
A Reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (15:20-26, 51-58)
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For "God has put all things in subjection under his feet."...
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

I must admit, it took me some time to figure out what text of Scripture I'd use to begin this meditation. Up until now, each of the Rosary Mysteries comes directly from the Gospels and, in the case of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, from the Acts of the Apostles. However, the last two mysteries, though not without some biblical support, are not explicitly recorded in Scripture. They are, rather, part of Apostolic Tradition. This, of course, does not mean that they are "unbiblical" in the sense of contradicting truths of the Bible (I contend that no element of Catholic dogma contradicts the Bible). Instead, I would say that the mysteries of Mary's Assumption into Heaven and her Coronation as Queen of Heaven are "unbiblical" simply in the same way that cars, television, and the computer at which you are sitting to read this are "unbiblical". That is, these things are post-biblical, coming to be only after the Bible's many books had been composed, or else (as is possibly the case with at least John's Gospel), they were not mentioned simply because they weren't part of the story being told. The fact is, the only book of the Bible likely to have been written after Mary's Assumption does in fact seem to allude to that fact, but since I had already decided to use the text of Revelation 12 for our final meditation, I thought it would be redundant to use it here, too.

And so, I was left wondering what text I should use. Realising, after much fretting and prayer, that the Feast of the Assumption (known as the Dormition of Mary in the Eastern Churches) dates back to around the 7th Century (based on traditions dating back as far as the 4th, or even the 3rd centuries), I wondered what texts were part of its liturgy. And so, here in our meditation, I have used the Second Reading for both the Vigil (August 14th) and the Feast itself (August 15th), since they are from the same chapter of 1 Corinthians.

In this text, St. Paul teaches and reminds the Corinthians (and us) about certain key realities surrounding death. The first thing, primarily, is that death is not the end. Christ, he says, has been resurrected! Through His innocent suffering and death, and by His resurrection, He has overcome death! Paul calls Him the "firstfruits" of those who have died. Since all of us were born dead spiritually--without grace in our souls--because of Adam's sin, we all are fated to die physically as a result of both his original sin and our own actual sins. But now Christ has paid the penalty for sin, and His resurrection is the guarantee that those of us who are united to Christ in baptism, and have lived our lives in obedience to Him, shall also rise up with Him at the last day! This is what Paul is saying when he tells us that death is the last enemy to be destroyed.

This is our hope as Christians, that just as Christ has been resurrected, so He too will resurrect us, reuniting our souls to our bodies! And as though His own resurrection of divine-and-human flesh was not guarantee enough of our own resurrected merely human bodies, Christ has given us a second foretaste of this future resurrection through the wonderful honour which He paid to His Mother, by assuming her into heaven to be with Him. For Mary's presence in heaven is different from the other saints in this way--that while they are there in spirit only, and still await the resurrection of their bodies, Mary has been brought to heaven both body and soul!

And while Mary's Assumption into Heaven is a wonderful sign of hope for us of our own future resurrection and glorification, her assumption primarily is Jesus' filial act of honour towards her. Moreover, this privilege follows logically and fittingly on that other, greater and primary privilege of Mary: her Immaculate Conception. For Mary, as we discussed in our first Joyful Mystery, was protected by a singular act of God's Grace from the stain of original sin. That is, Mary was the first human being since Adam and Eve to have been created in a state of grace! And unlike Adam and Eve, who nevertheless threw away that grace, Mary treasured it and remained in it her whole life.

In our reading, St. Paul tells us that death came about through Adam's sin, and that the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law (1 Cor 15:56). Since through Christ's victory (v. 57), applied to Mary in a preemptive fashion, she was able to keep the Law through His grace and remained free from sin, then the penalty of sin, which is death, could have no power over her. And so it was, as the official declaration of this dogma states, that Mary, "having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory (Pius XII: Munificentissimus Deus)".

And so, Mary was taken up into Heaven, to dwell with her Son, in a place of honour. There she reigns as Queen Mother to Christ the King, interceding for us to Him, as King Solomon's mother did with him on behalf of Adonijah (1 Kings 2:19-20), imploring graces for us. Let us then honour her as Christ Himself has, and proclaim with the Church the words of the Canticle:
My dove is my only one,
perfect and mine.
She is the darling of her mother,
the favourite of the one who bore her.
Girls have seen her and proclaimed her blessed,
Queens and concubines have sung her praises,
'Who is this arising like the dawn,
fair as the moon,
resplendent as the sun,
formidable as an army?' (Song of Songs 6:9-10)
Mother Mary, clothed with the sun, with the moon under your feet, continue to inspire us with hope and grace, toward the work of the Lord, knowing that it is never in vain.


(Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Third Glorious Mystery

The Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-15, 22-28, 32-33, 36-38, 41-47)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs--in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning....
"You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know--this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him,
"I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad,
and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover my flesh will live in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.'...
This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.... Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified."
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, "Brothers, what should we do?" Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit...." So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

After Jesus ascended into Heaven, His followers gathered in Jerusalem, and met in the Upper Room where He had first instituted the Eucharist, and had later appeared to the Apostles, breathing upon them the Holy Spirit as a foreshadowing of the full promise of the Spirit yet to come. In this Upper Room, the disciples met, and for nine days prayed the Church's first Novena to the Holy Spirit. Among the group were the Eleven Apostles, as well as Jesus' Mother, certain other women (likely those who had accompanied Mary while Jesus was crucified, as well as perhaps Mary and Martha of Bethany), some of Jesus' other relatives, who seem to have come to believe in Him after His resurrection, despite doubts they had expressed during His lifetime (cf. Mark 3:21), as well as many others, numbering around one hundred and twenty people.

During this time of waiting, Peter began to exercise his role as Chief of the Apostles and head of the new Church, and declared to them that, in light of Judas' betrayal and subsequent suicide, he must be replaced, in order that the number of Apostles would again be Twelve. For Jesus had come to inaugurate His Kingdom, which is the Church. The Church is the New Israel, and the Apostles represented the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

For the Jews, the feast of Pentecost (or Shavuot) was celebrated 50 days after the Passover, and commemorated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. It is one of the three Pilgrim Feasts, which mandated that Jews must make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast. This is why there were at that time so many people from so many nationalities present.

On Mount Sinai, the glory of God descended on the mountain with a great cloud and fire (Exodus 19:16-18). Here, the 10 Commandments were engraved by God on stone, and given to the people. Here, He covenanted to go with them through the wilderness, and lead them to the Promised Land. But, as we know from Scripture, the Israelites broke the Covenant with God (repeatedly). Thus, later, God would prophesy through Ezekiel,
I shall pour clean water over you and you will be cleansed; I shall cleanse you of all your filth and of all your foul idols. I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead. I shall put my spirit in you, and make you keep my laws, and respect and practise my judgements (Ez. 36:25-27).
Through the Eucharist, Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant in His Blood, which He shed for us on the Cross. Thus He began to fulfil this prophecy, and its completion came at Pentecost.

We see this fulfilment in the book of Acts, as the disciples were gathered in the Upper Room, waiting and praying for the promised Holy Spirit. Like at Sinai, God the Holy Spirit descended in the form of wind (or cloud) and fire, but unlike at Sinai, where God descended upon the mountain, and spoke to the people at a distance and through Moses, the Holy Spirit descended in tongues of fire which came to rest on each person. Instead of a Law of Stone which was powerless to save (and thus produced nothing but hearts of stone), God gave the Church His Spirit, as Ezekiel prophesied, which brought the power of grace to save us and to make us able to obey the Law of Grace.

This same Spirit enabled the disciples to speak in new tongues and compelled them to go out and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the nations--the same nations who had come to Jerusalem just then to celebrate Pentecost! Thus Jews from all over the known world were there to hear the Gospel, being proclaimed to them in their own languages! Bewildered, amazed, and some still sceptical, the onlookers questioned the new, zealous Christians, and Peter again stood up in leadership, and proclaimed clearly and straightforwardly the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who died, and who rose again, and brings the forgiveness of sins for all who believe!

Just as Moses on Sinai mediated the Covenant to the people of Israel, so Jesus mediated the New and definitive Covenant with us! If Jesus is the New Moses, then Peter (and his successors), leader of the Church after Jesus left, is the New Joshua, who leads the Church onwards in her pilgrimage to the Promised Land, the New and Heavenly Jerusalem.

Filled with faith in the message that Peter brought, and in the Christ whom he proclaimed, the people asked what they could do to be saved, and Peter, in fulfilment of the rest of Ezekiel's prophecy, proclaimed repentance and baptism, so that they, too, would have clean water poured over them and be cleansed, and have God's Spirit put in them! And on this, the birthday of the Church, 3000 people came to embrace faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord!

Before leaving this meditation, I would like to reflect on one more aspect of the story of Pentecost, namely, Luke's particular mention of the presence of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, at these events. More than merely a parenthetical comment, I believe her mention is significant for several reasons. First of all, as I mentioned in my meditation on Jesus' Resurrection, Mary is not mentioned in the accounts of His post-resurrection appearances. I will not belabour the point here, but it does seem significant that in all those accounts, the theme was Jesus' abolition of the disciples' doubts and despair. Mary, who did not doubt her Son, does not reappear in the biblical narrative until the disciples are gathered in the Upper Room, where she is numbered with the believers in awaiting the Holy Spirit.

The second reason why I find her mention significant, is that her presence at Pentecost seems to be almost a bookend of sorts in the Gospel story. When we first encounter her in Luke's narrative (Luke, of course, authoring both the Gospel by his name, and the book of Acts), we see Gabriel telling her that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her, thus bringing about Jesus' Incarnation. Just as the Spirit hovered over the seas (maria in Latin) of Creation, so He hovered over Mary (Maria) at the Incarnation. Just as He overshadowed the Ark of the Covenant, containing the Law and the Manna, so He overshadowed Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant, conceiving in her the Lawgiver and the Bread of Life. Thus, just as we see the Spirit coming down to begin Jesus' time on earth, so we see Him descending, permanently, to mark the end of Jesus' earthly ministry. And both times, Mary is central.

This parallel flows into the third reason why I find Mary's presence at Pentecost significant. At Pentecost, God appeared to Moses in cloud and fire, commissioning the Law as well as the Tabernacle and its furnishings, most notably the Ark of the Covenant previously mentioned. This holiest of artifacts was not only the reliquary which contained the Law (and later the Manna, and Aaron's priestly staff which budded demonstrating his authority), but it was also the locus for God's presence. For as the Israelites wandered through the wilderness, God would go before them as the cloud by day and fire by night. And when God stopped, the Israelites would make camp, according to their tribes, surrounding the Ark of the Covenant in the midst of them. And God would descend upon the Ark, and while He remained there, the Israelites remained encamped, and when He rose up, they would move on.

And so we find, in the New Testament, Jesus reconstituting Israel with the Twelve Apostles for the Twelve Tribes, and like they waited for the Spirit of God to move, He commanded His Apostles and other disciples to wait for the Spirit of God. And so the Twelve Apostles, with one hundred and twenty others, encamped, like the ancient Israelites, with the New Ark of the Covenant, Mary, the Mother of God, in their midst. And when the Spirit came down, the Church rose up, with Mary, the New Ark, in their midst, and began its pilgrimage, beginning in Jerusalem, and going out to the ends of the earth to bring others into the Kingdom of God, and conduct them to the Promised Land of the Heavenly Jerusalem, bestowing on them, and on us, that same promised Holy Spirit. "For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him" (Acts 2:39).

Come Holy Spirit. Come by means of the powerful intercession of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Your well-beloved spouse. Amen.


(Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Second Glorious Mystery

The Ascension of Jesus

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to St. Mark (16:9-20)
Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.
Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover."
So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.

After Jesus' resurrection, He appeared to over 500 people over a period of forty days, proving that He had, indeed risen. Surely that proof didn't require a whole forty days. Instead, I believe much more was going on. First of all, the period of time, 40 days--indeed, the very number 40--has a certain significance throughout the Bible. The flood rains lasted for 40 days. The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the Wilderness. Elijah travelled for 40 days into the wilderness when fleeing from Jezebel, and returned with a new prophetic purpose. And at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, He went and fasted in the wilderness for 40 days. These are to name just a few of the biblical episodes that feature a length of 40 somethings (days or years). And each time seems to mark a transition in God's action. The flood wiping away sin and saving Noah and his family; the wandering in the Desert purifying Israel of Egypt's influence and preparing them for the Promised Land; as mentioned, Elijah's trek prompting a new encounter with the presence of God and renewing his ministry; and Jesus' transition from private life to public ministry. Thus, Jesus' 40 days of appearing to His followers after His resurrection has similar significance, preparing them for the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church. And during those forty days, His disciples had much to learn.

For Jesus' appearances were more than simply confirmations of His Resurrection. In one episode, He specifically takes Peter aside and restores him to his previous position as prince of the apostles, telling him to feed Jesus' sheep. In another place, Jesus walks along the road with two dejected followers, and gives a detailed explanation of the Scriptures that prophesied of His Passion and Resurrection. At the beginning of the Book of Acts, St. Luke specifically tells us that Jesus' appearances were for just that purpose: "for forty days he had continued to appear to them and tell them about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3).

For three years, His disciples had walked with Him and learned from Him, but so much of the lessons were not fully grasped. Certainly, none of the Apostles saw His death coming, even though He'd specifically told them about it on three separate occasions. But now, after the Resurrection, the Apostles received their "post-graduate" training in the Gospel. It was here, I believe, that "the faith which has been once and for all entrusted to God's holy people" (Jude 3) was, in fact, being entrusted. The Sacraments, the priesthood, Christ's very plan for His Church--the Kingdom of God--was being instituted in these forty days.

When a person wants to become a Catholic, he enters a process known as the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). In the early Church, this process could last up to three years, as a potential convert inquired into and was instructed in the Catholic Faith. Then, at Easter, they would receive Baptism, their First Eucharist, and Confirmation. Then, from Easter to Pentecost came a period known as Mystagogy, or the instruction in the deeper mysteries of the Church. It is essentially the same format followed today (though usually taking less than a year; however, the Church urges each catechumen to journey at his own pace). This model, particularly in the Early Church, seems easily to have been modelled on Jesus' ministry to His Disciples--who were taught the basics of the Kingdom of God and Jesus' Messiahship, but only fully came to understand it upon His Resurrection, at which time they began their own Mystagogy as Jesus revealed to them the fullness of truth that is the Church, which culminated in the first Novena--nine days of prayer and waiting for the bestowal of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

After the 40 Days of Mystagogy were over for the Disciples, Jesus gathered them together just outside of Bethany, and promised that the Holy Spirit would come and empower them to be His witnesses. He commissioned them to go out to all the world, preaching the Gospel to all nations--because His Church was not for one race, but was to be Catholic--embracing of all people. He again stressed the necessity of baptism in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit for salvation and the forgiveness of sins, and promised that His Gospel would be confirmed in His followers by many miraculous signs, including authority over Satan, speaking in tongues, divine protection, and miraculous healing--signs which have operated in and through the Church ever since.

He then blessed the Apostles and the disciples, and promised that He would be with His Church until the very end--a promise He keeps as He dwells with us, truly present in the Most Holy Eucharist. Then He, under His own power, ascended up to Heaven, where He sits at the Right Hand of God, continually interceding for us, and offering His sacrificed self on our behalf eternally (cf. Rev. 5:6; 13:8).

Let us, as we meditate on Jesus' Ascension, remember that He truly is with us, and that we participate in His sacrifice through the Eucharist. Let us, strengthened by the Bread from Heaven and empowered by His Spirit, boldly proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to those whom we meet, no matter who they are!


(Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)